Interaction in Heterogeneous EFL Classes: The Challenges of Cooperative Learning

Peter Schildhauer (Bielefeld University)


This paper argues that a focus on interaction is just as crucial as choosing adequate, learner-centred methods in heterogeneous English classrooms. It analyses video-taped English lessons in which cooperative learning methods were implemented. The data indicate that the teacher deals with a variety of communicative tasks during cooperative learning phases and interacts frequently with the learners. The paper discusses possible reasons for this interactional density, and highlights the heterogeneity of the learner group as one of them. The interactional practice ‘content-related assistance’ is analysed in detail as a collaborative, multimodal work of all participants. The paper shows how this practice is modified in order to allow for the learner-centredness demanded by cooperative learning.

1. Introduction

The IEGLL conference and the resulting publications in this volume provide ample proof to support the fact that Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) practitioners in Germany are currently concerned with the question of how good TEFL can be realised in heterogeneous learner groups (e.g., Bongartz & Rohde, 2015; Chilla & Vogt, 2017; Roters, Gerlach, & Eßer, 2018). A recurring motif in the growing body of literature on this topic is the idea of individualising learning processes by implementing learner-centred forms of teaching – in particular, by using methods associated with cooperative learning, such as Bus Stop, Placemat and Jigsaw Puzzle (e.g. Blume, Kielwein, & Schmidt, 2018;1 Klein-Landeck & Hinz, 2014; Küchler & Roters, 2014; see also Heckt, 2009). Cooperative learning methods stress the importance of tasks that can only be solved successfully through the collaboration of team members. These tasks aim at establishing positive dependencies among the learners, and hold the learners responsible for a product as the outcome of a cooperative learning phase (Oxford, 1997).

It is this instructional approach that the present paper will focus on. However, I would like to argue that in searching for adequate teaching methods, we should not neglect a central axiom: Teaching only works through interaction – teaching is interaction (You, Kupetz, & Glaser, 2018). As compared to other subjects, TEFL interaction is special in two ways:

  • More than in other subjects, interaction in TEFL is not only a means, but also an end in itself (e.g., ‘focus on form’; see Frenzke-Shim, 2018, p. 10).
  • Ideally, TEFL interaction is based on a reflected relation between the target language and source language(s), making use of the former whenever possible (Butzkamm & Caldwell, 2009, p. 25).

These specifics entail particular challenges for TEFL teachers. Arguably, these challenges become even more noticeable in dynamic, learner-centred lesson phases, in which the focus shifts from the teacher as central node of classroom interaction to interactions among the learners (Becker-Mrotzek & Vogt, 2009). Cooperative learning is one instructional approach that aims at such an interactional shift. The following discussion also suggests that the challenges mentioned above become more central in heterogeneous learner groups.

Research on TEFL in German schools, however, has only recently (re)discovered this interactional aspect (Schwab, 2009, pp. 92–93). Therefore, we know relatively little about the phenomena and underlying practices of teacher-learner interaction in learner-centred phases (Schwab & Schramm, 2016, p. 292) – especially in so-called ‘inclusive’,2 or in general highly heterogeneous learner groups. Therefore, this paper pursues three questions:

  1. How can the teachers’ interactional profiles in cooperative learning phases be characterised?
  2. What interactional practices do teachers and learners draw on in cooperative learning phases?
  3. What implications can these results have for teacher training?

In what follows, I sketch the research project on whose preliminary results this paper is based (2.1) and the method used for approaching the data (2.2). The results section provides an overview of interactional practices and their frequency (3.1) and then turns to a detailed analysis of the practice ‘content-related assistance’ (3.2) and its deliberate modification in one learner group (3.3). I conclude this paper by discussing the results in the light of the research questions.

2. The ICooL Project: ‘Interaction in ELT Cooperative Learning Phases’

2.1 Data

At the time of writing (June 2019), the ICooL corpus consists of English lessons that were video- and audio-taped between 2017 and 2019 in three learner groups at a comprehensive school in North Rhine-Westphalia.3 

Table 1: ICooL Corpus Overview (SL = single lesson, 45 minutes | DL = double lesson, 90 minutes).

Here, I will focus on a subset of this data (I-VI in Table 1): a learner group labelled ‘inclusive’ whose English lessons were filmed at the end of their 5th and again, at the end of their 6th year. This group comprises 25 learners, including one learner with an L1 different from German and several learners with special educational needs (SEN) in ‘learning or socio-emotional development’. At the end of year 5, the group just starts working with cooperative learning. Therefore, some methods listed in Table 1 are not typical representatives of that instructional approach. However, the teacher uses them in order to train key aspects of cooperative learning such as the work in different teams as well as mutual dependencies and support. In year 6, we find typical cooperative methods such as the Placemat method.

Figure 1: Sketch of the classroom (C = camera, T = teacher’s desk).

The data was collected using two cameras (Figure 1). The teacher received an attachable microphone. Interviews with the teacher and field notes complement the corpus.

2.2 Method

The data analysis (Figure 2) was inspired by Interactional Linguistics (Couper-Kuhlen & Selting, 2017), the ethnographic branch of Conversation Analysis (Deppermann, 2000) and Functional Pragmatics (Redder, 2008). ❶ Individual interactional sequences were determined and described on the following levels (Kupetz, 2015, p. 22):

  • verbal: all language-related resources, in particular segmental phonetics and phonology, morpho-syntax, and lexis
  • vocal: suprasegmental prosodic resources such as pitch, volume, temporality, and voice quality
  • kinetic: gesture, facial expressions, gaze, proxemics, and the manipulation of objects

❷ Interactions pursuing a similar communicative purpose were grouped and interpreted as instantiations of the same underlying practice. Such communicative purposes can be the provision of content-related assistance, reminders of using the L2, and others (see, e.g., Figure 3 below).  Practices are conceptualised as shared knowledge-patterns that underlie interactions (Miller, 1994). They constitute routine solutions for recurring communicative problems (Deppermann, Feilke, & Linke, 2016, p. 8). Practices can be acquired implicitly by abstracting away from recurring interactions or explicitly by instruction. ❸ This interactional knowledge is prototypically organised (Lemke, 1999): some features are central to a practice and re-occur frequently in the examples, while others are rather peripheral and, therefore, only occur occasionally in classroom interaction. For the practice ‘content-related assistance’ discussed below, for example, it appears to be typical that students check the availability of the teacher, describe a problem and/or ask a question and receive a verbal reaction by the teacher. Peripheral cases include non-verbal reactions by the teacher (e.g., shrugging shoulders) and other variations of the typical pattern such as teacher-initiations of assistance sequences. The prototype of a practice (i.e. a description of central elements) can be re-constructed by comparing the instantiations collected in ❷. The typical elements of a practice are noted in form of a script, an abstract action plan which points out cognitive and interactional operations which the interlocutors (here: learner & teacher) typically need to perform when realising a certain practice.

Figure 2: Reconstruction of practices as abstract action patterns.

3. Results and Discussion

The methodology outlined above allows for identifying several practices of teacher-learner interaction in the context of cooperative learning phases. The following sections provide exemplary insights into interactional profiles before turning to a more detailed analysis of the practice ‘content-related assistance’.

3.1 Interactional Tasks in the Context of Cooperative Learning: Overview

Figure 3 displays a quantified overview of all interactions during the cooperative working phase in lesson II (learning centres) in which the teacher participated with at least one verbal turn. The interactions were categorised as instantiations of several interactional practices according to the methodology outlined above. 

Figure 3: Teacher-Student Interactions –Working Phase of Lesson II

Figure 3 shows that the teacher participates in a high number of interactions (x= 2.58 / minute). In the first third of the working phase, the teacher frequently explains the task to individual students. Until minute 40, we can additionally observe interactions during which the working process and the required material are organised and negotiated. From minute 15, the teacher provides content-related assistance. The common purpose of all these practices is to provide additional guidance and orientation for the learners – either on a general or a content-related level. At first sight, it seems as if this apparent need for orientation is so pronounced in the cooperative working phase of lesson II because a) the learner group includes learners with SENs in the areas of ‘learning’ and ‘socio-emotional development’ and b) the learners are not very experienced with cooperative methods. However, a comparison with a working phase in the same learner group one year later (lesson VI – the learners produce a poster) yields the following results:

Figure 4: Teacher-Student Interactions – Cooperative Working Phase of Lesson VI.

Figure 4 shows that the range of interactional practices does not change. Again, interactions providing orientation assume a prominent position. However, the teacher also reminds the learners more frequently to use English and there is more space for “other” interactions such as small jokes. The teacher participates in x = 2.5 interactions / minute. A detailed analysis of the core of the working phase (Figure 5) reveals that the teacher is involved in short interactions, often with a break of a few seconds only (or none at all).

Figure 5: Timeline of Teacher-Student Interactions in Lesson VI (Working Phase; Minute 10-15).

As the data indicates, the teacher is just as interactionally involved as in the working phase of lesson II.

Additionally, lesson VI is – in contrast to lesson II – taught together with a SEN teacher. The interactional profile of the SEN teacher is displayed in Figure 6 and Figure 7 for comparison. With x = 1.0 interactions / minute, the SEN teacher’s average number of interactions is considerably lower.

Figure 6: SEN Teacher-Student Interactions – Cooperative Working Phase of Lesson VI.

Figure 7: Timeline of SEN Teacher-Student Interactions in Lesson VI (Working Phase, Minute 10-15).

Figure 7 reveals that the SEN teacher spends most of the working phase assisting one group of students intensively. This group includes a student with a SEN in ‘learning’ and a student with a different L1 than German. Thus, the SEN teacher works with some students who apparently need particular assistance, while the English teacher interacts with all groups in close succession.

Taken together, the comparative analysis of the interactional profiles shows that the teacher interacts frequently with the students during the cooperative working phases, mainly in order to provide additional guidance. Intuitively, a decrease of interaction intensity could have been assumed with a growing proficiency in cooperative learning on the learners’ side (see above). On the current data basis, reasons for this counter-intuitive observation can only be speculated on. Some possible candidates include the following:

  • The heterogeneity of the learner group and in particular the presence of numerous learners in need of additional guidance: This is in line with the fact that interactions following this general purpose (clarifying the task, organising the working process and the material, content-related assistance) comprise at least 50% (or higher) of the interactions in the first half, and still considerable fractions in the remainder of the working phases investigated here.
  • The data indicate an increase of “other” interactions (e.g., small jokes). Apparently, the openness of the working phase is used for phatic interactions between teacher and learners – which is an opportunity of increasing opportunities for authentic L2-interactions (the teacher exclusively interacts in English in these sequences).
  • The presence of the SEN teacher potentially frees the English teacher from longer interactions with one single group and allows her to interact more intensely with the rest of the learner group.
  • From the point of view of cooperative learning methodology, it could be argued that a teacher could try to reduce interactional intensity in a more experienced learner group and step back from frequent teacher-learner interactions.

This last point is taken up in the following two sections, which investigate how the teacher modifies the practice ‘content-related assistance’ from a rather teacher- to a learner-centred pattern. 

3.2. The Practice ‘Content-related Assistance’

The following example is taken from the working phase in lesson III (0:48:35-0:49-28). The students work in learning centres dealing with the lexical fields ‘clothes,’ ‘weather’ and ‘activities’. S1 asks the teacher for assistance with a worksheet which pictures a pile of clothes and which asks the learners to colour individual items in specific colours. S1 has difficulty identifying the tie, which she is supposed to colour “in red and blue”.

Before addressing the teacher (T), S1 closely observes T’s actions at another group’s table (Figure 8). 

Figure 8: Checking Availability.4

At the very moment the teacher turns towards the open space in between the group tables, S1 starts moving towards this open space, where she meets T and asks for a translation of ‘tie’.5

Despite T’s statement in 02, S1 can assume that T knows the translation. Additionally, S1 must assume that T is following the cooperative principle (Grice, 1975), trying to make a point relevant to the interaction at hand by flouting the maxim of quality.6 T’s facial expression corroborates this assumption: T looks at S1 with her mouth twisted in a slight ironical smile, cocking her head (Figure 9). From these indicators, one can infer that S1 is to find the solution on her own. The fact that S1 walks back to her desk immediately after T’s reply suggests that S1 draws this (or a similar) conclusion.

Figure 9: i dOn_t KNOW.

T follows S1 back to S1’s desk and extends the sequence:

The utterances in 03-04 are syntactically marked as questions by their use of wh-pronouns and do-periphrasis. However, T utters 04 with a falling intonation, which rather characterises 04 as a statement. The following lines suggest that 04 serves as an opening signal for an instruction sequence. This is underlined by a) the fact that S1 does not claim the floor despite the presence of a transition-relevance place in 04 and b) T reaching for the textbook simultaneously. The rise-fall intonation in 06 serves as an irony marker, suggesting that T actually assumes S1 to know how to solve her problem.

Subsequently, T interrupts the instructional sequence by opening an other-initiated other-repair (Couper-Kuhlen & Selting, 2017, p. 201) regarding the pronunciation of ‘tie’.

On a kinetic level, T signals the interruption by shifting her position and actively seeking eye contact with S1. Apparently, S1 understands this as a request to repeat the correct pronunciation (10). Subsequently, S1 turns back to the book and thus initiates a shift back to the instruction sequence. The textbook, however, does not contain the required information:

In 13, T hints at her doubts, 14 provides confirmation. S1 takes the floor in order to offer a German translation, which, however, concerns the verb ‘(to) tie sth.’ T does not respond to S1’s utterance, but confirms and evaluates the non-availability of the noun ‘tie’ in the dictionary. T then marks the beginning of a new phase by a marked change into an upright body position. In this final phase, T paraphrases the meaning of ‘tie’ in the L2. In doing so, T establishes eye contact with S2, another member of S1’s group, thereby singling her out as next speaker.

In order to render her input comprehensible, T uses a tie gesture, i.e. moves her hand up and down above the body area where a tie would be placed. Despite the fact that T does not formulate 18 as a question, S2 interprets the utterance as a request to verbalise her guess. 

This suggests that the participants are well acquainted with paraphrasing as a practice in which the learners’ task is to voice translation guesses and which enables the teacher to stay in the L2. The fact that T acknowledges the correctness of the translation (20) and subsequently closes the interaction by leaving the group table corroborates this assumption. The lines 18-20 contain a typical practice of classroom interaction, namely the sequence ‘initiation – response – evaluation’ (Sinclair & Coulthard, 1975). All interactants follow this practice, without any need for the teacher to elicit a student utterance explicitly. The repair sequence discussed above works along similar lines.

This example constitutes a complex variant of a ‘content-related assistance’ interaction. It contrasts with other sequences in which T provides a direct answer or merely points to available material such as the dictionary. In each case, T decides which of these variants are realised. The action pattern in Figure 10 provides an abstraction from these different realisations.

Figure 10: Action Pattern ‘Content-related Assistance’.

S1 perceives a knowledge gap and subsequently surveys the availability of the teacher by observing her body language and her position in the classroom. S1’s question meets a decision node in T’s mental domain: Depending on factors such as available lesson time, proficiency of the learner, complexity of the request and others, T decides for a) a direct answer or b) other strategies. In the example analysed above, T activates two strategies: instruction as to how to solve the problem autonomously and paraphrasing the lexeme. The learners follow T from one practice to the next. Simultaneously, they need to evaluate to what extent the knowledge gap has been closed, i.e. whether the interaction has been successful. Depending on this monitoring process, the learners may voice new questions, confirmation requests and closing signals. In the present example, S2’s translation offer can be interpreted as a confirmation request. On the basis of her own monitoring, T decides to either continue or close the interaction. The fact that it is invariably T who closes interactional sequences in the ICooL corpus mirrors the general asymmetry of classroom interaction (Vogt, 2015, p. 22).

3.3 Interactional Modifications: The Pre-Sequence ‘Brain – Book – Buddy – Boss’

Elaborate sequences such as 3.2 bear the disadvantage of “binding” teachers in one interaction for a relatively long period of time during which they are not available for other learners. 

Assumedly on the basis of these (or similar) considerations, the teacher introduces a mandatory pre-sequence to any request for assistance prior to lesson IV.7 The pre-sequence is referred to as ‘brain, book, buddy, boss’ and determines a succession of sources to be consulted for assistance: After trying on their own, learners are supposed to consult their textbook, then are allowed to turn to a partner, and only as a last step to T. During the working phase, T only needs to check whether all the steps have been taken, or remind her students of this pre-sequence:

After a moment of hesitation, the teacher reacts to S3’s request. Both the hesitation and the particle ‘eh’ suggest a decision process prior to the verbal answer. The answer itself contains the elements of the sequence outlined above. S3 joins the teacher, and from 04 onwards S3’s utterances even precede T’s. This underlines the fact that the pre-sequence was taught prior to lesson IV. T’s answer flouts Grice’s maxims of quantity (providing less information than requested) and relevance (providing different information than requested). In 09, T explicates the implicature generated by this maxim flouting.

Figure 11 integrates the pre-sequence into the action plan devised for content-related assistance above. It shows that the cognitive work load shifts considerably from the mental domain of the teacher to the learner. Thereby, T’s decision node is noticeably simplified: If the required steps have been completed, the teacher can provide immediate help.

Figure 11: Action Pattern with Pre-Sequence.

4. Conclusion

In this paper, I pursued a related set of research questions concerning interactional practices in a heterogeneous ELT classroom in Germany. I focused on cooperative learning phases as one example for a potentially learner-centred setting. This last section will address each of these questions in turn.

1. How can the teachers’ interactional profiles in cooperative learning phases be characterised?

The present case study has shown that the teacher has to fulfil several communicative tasks in the context of cooperative learning phases. The data indicate that the teacher-learner interactions take place in short intervals, and at a high frequency. The comparative analysis of two samples from the same learner group that are roughly one year apart revealed that the intensity of teacher-learner interaction does not considerably decrease with the learners gaining more experience in cooperative methods. This paper pointed out several possible factors contributing to this fact. Amongst others, it was suggested that the need for intense interactions, in particular for providing additional guidance, could be linked to the heterogeneity of the learner group. In general, the results presented here indicate that cooperative learning phases can be interactionally challenging for teachers. However, testing the validity of these assumptions on further data remains an issue for further research.

2. What interactional practices do teachers and learners draw on in learner-centred phases?

This paper has used the practice ‘content-related assistance’ as a case in point. The analyses in 3.2 and 3.3 allow for the following conclusions:

  • The practice is realised as a collaborative interactional work of all participants. Both the teacher and the learner(s) skilfully coordinate verbal, vocal, and kinetic resources. The teacher’s prosody, proxemics, and gestures provide the learners with important cues, concerning, for instance, the teacher’s availability and transitions from one practice to the next.
  • The participants draw on practices which are a canonical part of classroom interaction in general, in particular the sequence ‘initiation – response – evaluation’. These practices provide stability and security for all interactants, especially in learner-centred phases, which do not allow for a detailed a priori planning of every interactional move and which are more dynamic than teacher-centred phases.
  • The practice ‘content-related assistance’ can be regarded as a complex macro-practice in which various micro-practices can be integrated depending on how a specific interaction unfolds. The interactants move from one micro-practice to the next, guided by their shared interactional knowledge.
  • Practices can be modified explicitly and deliberately. This is evident from the pre-sequence ‘brain, book, buddy, boss’ (3.3). This pre-sequence can potentially promote learner-learner interactions (instead of teacher-learner interactions), allowing the teacher to retreat into the observer position that is recommended for methods of the cooperative learning paradigm (Klippert, 2010, p. 140).
  • Finally, this indicates that long-established interactional practices may need to be modified in order to allow for the shift from teacher- to learner-centred teaching. In other words: Using learner-centred methods is only one side of the coin and needs to be complemented by a deliberate modification of established interactional practices.

3. What implications can these first results have for teacher training?

This paper has shown the significance that working on interactional practices may have in ELT classrooms, particularly in heterogeneous learner groups. We can assume that teachers and learners generally navigate the classroom with the help of established interactional practices – especially in dynamic situations. If the established repertoire of interactional practices is to be modified in order to achieve a higher degree of learner-orientation, reflection processes are needed that reveal established practices and show potential modifications. This holds true for both experienced teachers and teachers-in-training: After years of socialisation at various schools, all of us command a repertoire of classroom-related interactional practices.

Examples such as the ones discussed in this paper can serve as the starting point for improving interactional competences. Working on videos and transcripts allows for the necessary distance, without an actual classroom’s immediate pressure to (re)act. The notation of abstract action patterns can serve as the basis for comparing practices and estimating the effect of modifications. In the light of the challenges of inclusive English classrooms, we should pursue this approach further and not underestimate the role of classroom interaction.


I am very grateful to the teachers and their learners for allowing me and my cameras into their classrooms (yes, S4 – your hair looks great in each video!). I’d also like to thank Alexander Brock and the anonymous reviewers for their feedback on earlier drafts of this paper.


1 Even though Blume et al. (2018) mainly focus on the potentials and limitations of Task-Based Language Teaching, their discussion illustrates that cooperative methods can be a crucial part of the task-cycle (e.g. Blume et al., 2018, p. 40).

2 For the purposes of the present paper, inclusive refers to learner groups in which learners with and without special educational needs learn together (see Springob, 2017, p. 44 for a more elaborate definition). This conceptualisation also underlies the label of inclusive classes in present-day German secondary schools.

3 As part of the ongoing research project ‘Interaction in ELT Cooperative Learning Phases’, corpus compilation is currently being extended to further learner groups to allow for a comparative approach in future research. 

4 In order to protect the participants’ privacy, stills have been turned into sketches using InstantPhotoSketch.

5 The transcripts follow GAT2 (Selting et al., 2009), enriched by multimodal annotations as suggested by Kupetz (2011).

6 With the cooperative principle, Grice (1975, p. 45) formulates a general guideline that interlocutors orient to when making their contributions: “Make your… contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.” This principle translates into the maxims of quality, quantity, relevance and modality. The maxim of quality states: “Try to make your contribution one that is true” (Grice, 1975, p. 46). Grice states that interlocutors must assume from each other that they follow the cooperative principle and the resulting maxims in order to make sense of each other’s contributions. If a maxim is deliberately acted against and this is made obvious to the conversation partner (flouting), the conversation partner can draw inferences based on the cooperative principle and reconstruct the implicated meaning (implicature). This process can be assumed in the example at hand: T’s facial expression, for instance, underlines that the maxim of quality is flouted and that she would like S1 to draw inferences from that fact.

7 During lesson VI, the teacher reported in a brief exchange with the researcher that the newly introduced practice shifts the interactional focus away from her, and thus provides her with more time for observations instead of continued interactions.


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